There is a classic rabbinic story about the mother who is teaching her son how to make a meatloaf for their Rosh Hashanah lunch. After mixing the ground beef and onion and egg and breadcrumbs and spices, she rolls up the loaf, chops the ends off and throws them away, and places it in the meatloaf pan.
The son notices that she has chopped off the ends, and, concerned about unnecessary food waste in a world where climate change and sustainability are paramount, asks his mother why she throws the ends away.
“I don’t know,” she says. That’s how my mother, your grandmother did it.
They call the grandmother to ask. She says, “I don’t know. That’s how my mother did it.”
They call the great-grandmother to ask. She is not well; she is weak, and can barely talk. “Why did I chop the ends off?” she asks, reflecting deep into the recesses of her mind. “Why did I chop the ends off? Because the pan was too small.”
We are a people who are committed to tradition. “Tradition!” calls Tevye the Milkman in Fiddler on the Roof. It’s a word that captures a whole lot of things in three short syllables.
Our theme for these High Holidays is “Back to Basics.” Yesterday, we spoke about the ongoing value of halakhah, usually translated as “Jewish law,” although that is at best an approximation. More accurately, halakhah is “the way to walk through life while acting on the imperative to be holy people.” In particular, we spoke about the Conservative movement’s role in conserving halakhah by occupying the central area between tradition and change.
But another essential aspect of tradition, and indeed a basic feature of Jewish life, is the area of Jewish behaviors that are not halakhah, not based in Jewish law from the Torah or Talmud, but rather in the area of minhag, custom. Customs are not mandatory, and can in fact be easily changed, but stripped of customs, Judaism is not recognizable. Medieval rabbis, when describing ancient minhagim that did not rise to the level of halakhah, would say, “Minhag avoteinu beyadeinu.” Our ancestors’ customs are in our hands.
Part II. Minhag / Custom
Our ancestors’ customs are in our hands.
So what are these minhagim / customs? Some, like the wearing of a kippah or the recitation of kaddish while in mourning are so ubiquitous and so long-standing that they seem like they should be halakhah. Some are instantly recognizable as symbols of the richness of Jewish life, like braiding hallah or singing songs at Shabbat dinner. Some are deeply personal and spiritual, like immersing in the mikveh before Yom Kippur (something which I am going to deeply miss this year, because I am not convinced that I can do it safely). Some are family things, like that special dish (meatloaf, maybe?) that your grandmother made for holiday meals, and some are regional, like the Persian-Jewish custom of whipping each other with scallions while singing Dayyenu.
Melodies. Clothes. Foods, Ritual objects. Holiday practices. Many of these things fall into the area of minhag, and it is the minhagim / customs of Jewish life that make Judaism interesting. Think of it this way: you have to wear clothes in public. If you do not, you are violating the law (and risk being arrested). But the law does not dictate the color of your clothes, or whether you wear a tie or a hat or a dress, or who designed the clothes. The variety and palette of clothing options are what allow us to express either our individuality or our commitment to a group, on a sliding scale therein, and this variety is what makes clothing appealing.
Some minhagim are ubiquitous throughout the Jewish world, and some are particular to a family or a small town in Poland or a region of North Africa.
These minhagim are in our hands.
They are in our hands in the sense that we can carry them and give them to our children and grandchildren. They are in our hands in the sense that we can acknowledge the power of minhagim only if we act on them. They are in our hands in the sense that it is up to us to choose to continue them or not.
How many of us occasionally think about something our parents or grandparents used to do that we do not? How many of us have discovered our grandfather’s tallit, for example, and wistfully recalled playing under its folds and fringes, but would never consider taking our own grandchildren to synagogue to do the same? How many of us have tried to recall the tasty dishes of past Passovers (in my house, for example, it’s my Grandma Rosie’s stuffed cabbage recipe, which my mother affectionately describes as a “patshke,” a messy bother, that may not survive to my children’s generation), or the familiar holiday melodies that we cannot quite remember, or that game that we used to play with cousins on Rosh Hashanah, but we haven’t done so in years because everybody lives so far apart now?
One of the things that we continue to lose, generation after generation in America, is what Brandeis Jewish studies professor emerita Sylvia Barack Fishman has identified as the “thick relationship” with Jewish life. You know, the fact that there used to be something like 12 kosher butchers on Murray Avenue, and how at one time all your neighbors were Jewish. You knew where everybody was on the first day of the month of Tishrei, because who didn’t go to shul on Rosh Hashanah? And you knew that a certain product in the grocery store was kosher because, as my father has told me about his own mother’s shopping habits, “everybody else was buying it.”
We have clearly lost that sense of “thickness,” that constant connection and reinforcement of Jewishness in America, even here in the shtetl of Squirrel Hill. There are many sociological factors in play here, and these things are far too complex to discuss here.
But the greater point is this: it is the customs of Jewish life that give it its ongoing appeal from generation to generation, and we let go of them at our own peril. So as much as halakhah is foundational to what we do, so too is the varied tapestry of minhag that seasons our Jewishness. And we need that thickness, that rich range of customs to ensure that Judaism continues to enrich our lives and our world. We need to be in the thick of it, in thick relationship with Jewish life, culture, ritual, and of course custom.
So how do we do this, given that our world has changed so dramatically in the past few decades? I am going to suggest three actions that are rooted in Jewish minhag:
You know how cool businesses have one word names? I’m going to give each of these ideas a cool name. Imagine them written in a simple, bold typeface, with a period at the end.
Gathering as a family, gathering with friends, gathering as a community in a Jewish context – this is the most fundamental Jewish minhag. Yes, gathering is a little fraught right now, but we are still doing it, even if this virtual connection is somewhat tenuous and woefully unsatisfying. And I assure you that when this whole pandemic is over, we will surely gather once again.
For this to work, however, gathering in this sense needs a Jewish ritual to frame it. Gather for Shabbat meals. Gather for a brief havdalah candle-lighting with cocktails. Gather for services via Zoom at Beth Shalom (and some day, bimherah beyameinu, speedily in our days, we will be able to gather again for services in person on a large scale). Gather for singing niggunim, which we have done both virtually and in-person.
And a subset of gathering is tefillah, prayer, although not in the way you might think.
Look, I know that synagogue services are not for everybody; they are something of an acquired taste. I know that if you do not read Hebrew, or if the melodies are unfamiliar, or if you just cannot quite stomach classical descriptions of God (yeah, BTW, I can’t either. Let’s talk!), if those things do not work for you, then tefillah does not work.
Also, I know that Jewish prayer takes a long time. Even on a weekday, in a Zoom service that is traditionally complete yet also short and to the point, I spend about 70 minutes in prayer. That’s actually a significant chunk of my day.
But let’s face it: despite our halakhic obligations, tefillah, that is, the recitation of liturgy in an ancient language that we do not understand is not really why we gather in synagogues. OK, so your friends will NOT believe you if you tell them your rabbi said this, but let me be clear about this: Fulfilling our obligation for daily prayer might be the nominal reason why we have synagogue services, but there are a host of implicit reasons for gathering in synagogue that have nothing to do with halakhah: among them, seeing your friends, meeting new people, learning, schmoozing, eating, comforting those who mourn, celebrating lifecycle events, etc., etc.
Ladies and gentlemen, even during these COVID-19 times, we have strong daily minyanim, every morning and every evening, and even without breakfast, or the opportunity to walk up and down kibitzing in the chapel (not mentioning any names here, but this is a long-standing Jewish minhag), we are still gathering, because it is just so powerful.
Creatively redesign your Jewish practice; that is, making new customs.
We gave you tools in the High Holiday Guide to hold a Rosh Hashanah seder, wherein before you start eating in earnest, you spend a few minutes discussing symbols of the holiday season, like a fish head (so you should be like the head of the year and not the tail), or beets (a Hebrew pun that plays on the word for beet, seleq, sounding like the word for to scatter one’s enemies).
But you can also be creative on Pesah: there are online tools for making your own haggadah, so go for it.
And Sukkot is a wonderful holiday for creativity – build a sukkah and make it your own!
I’m guessing that there is not enough singing in your life right now. Make a songbook to share with your family. Who cares if you’re all tone deaf! Seek out new melodies; there are plenty of resources for this online.
The third action that you can take is to pay attention. There are so many ways of connecting to Judaism and Jewish life right now, in addition to synagogue offerings: websites, blogs, podcasts, social media, and so forth and so on. It is so easy not to pay attention, because we have so many things vying for our eyeballs. But you should fight this inclination: Instead of tuning out, tune in by curating. Listen by creating a bookmark folder on your browser of favorite go-to Jewish sites: One for ideas about Jewish religion, one for your favorite rabbi’s blog (you should definitely bookmark themodernrabbi.com), one for your favorite Jewish news source, etc.
But make it your custom to put some daily effort into finding out what’s going on in the Jewish world. As you have heard me say before, it’s not assimilation or intermarriage which are threats to the Jewish future; it’s indifference. Listen. Make paying attention your minhag.
The kosher butchers of Murray Avenue are not coming back; they will not be able to compete with Costco. But you can create the thick relationship of Jewish life in your own home. Gather, customize, listen. That is the secret “minhagic,” not halakhic, key to living a Jewish life. Minhag avoteinu beyadeinu – our parents’ customs are in our hands. And so too are our own customs.
I am hoping that I or somebody else in my family will someday come up with a vegetarian version of my Grandma Rosie’s stuffed cabbage. And I look forward to hearing about your innovations as well, as we gather and listen to one another.
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, second day of Rosh Hashanah, 9/20/2020.)